150 Years of the Grundrisse

The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole: in a still quite natural way in the family and in the family expanded into the clan; then later in the various forms of communal society arising out of the antitheses and fusions of the clan. Only in the eighteenth century, in ‘civil society’, do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social (from this standpoint, general) relations.(Source)

The Grundrisse was the last of the trilogy of Marx’s mature works- the other two being Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy and Das Capital– to be published. Indeed, these notebooks were published one hundred years after they were written, leading Marcello Musto to comment that the work was published after ‘one hundred of years of solitude’. It is a tribute to Marx’s genius that he wrote this huge tome as a means of clarification of his own thoughts and as a preparation for his magnum opus, Das Capital, though some of its thoughts went into Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy as well. He did not intend it for publication.
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Reading Capital with David Harvey

Listening to David Harvey’s lectures on Capital Vol 1 not only gave me a feeling that I was re- reading Capital but also provided a refreshing enthusiasm that I had experienced when first reading the tome. Though the first three chapters are considered to be somewhat intimidating, these three chapters are also the most interesting ones. As Harvery points out, Marx follows different literary techniques in different parts of the book, and the first three are marked not only by philosophical flamboyance but also literary flourishes with copious references to Shakespeare , Schiller and Balzac (the latter, like Harvey, I read much after reading Capital).

If someone were to read Capital, I would now, with the benefit of hindsight recommend that one read it along with Shakespeare, Balzac and Hegel- not necessarily in that order. Again, as Harvery points out, it might be a better idea if one reads some works by Hegel before getting on to Capital– if only because it makes reading Marx much simpler. Similarly, for anyone reading the Communist Manifesto, I’d recommend reading it along with Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education and maybe even Lajos Zilahy’s Hungarian novel set in a similar period- A Century in Scarlet.
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Why Marx supported Free Trade

It is always fruitful to “go back to Marx”. While reading this speech that the old man made when he was quite young (in 1848) I could not but admire the clarity with which he grasps and articulates the essence of the matter at hand. At the end of his speech, he proclaims that he supports free trade… though from a different point of view than the “free traders”. His reference to the criticism that those opposed to free trade is as contemporary as it can be when any criticism of globalization is accused of supporting Nehruvian “socialism” and not as an exercise in identifying the contradictions inherent in the new phase of capitalism.

Do not imagine, gentlemen, that in criticizing freedom of trade we have the least intention of defending the system of protection.

One may declare oneself an enemy of the constitutional regime without declaring oneself a friend of the ancient regime.

Similar is his take on other aspects that are nowadays packaged in only slightly more sophisticated jargon of management gurus (I am reminded of phrases like “core competency”- according to which some countries are “naturally” suited for back office work and others for manufacturing)

For instance, we are told that free trade would create an international division of labor, and thereby give to each country the production which is most in harmony with its natural advantage.

Further down the speech is appropriately targeted as those who see globalization as a mere opening up to the world and not a phenomenon driven by capitalism (Amartya Sen in his book The Argumentative Indian is a case in point).

To call cosmopolitan exploitation universal brotherhood is an idea that could only be engendered in the brain of the bourgeoisie.

A longer quote from Marx’s speech on the question of free trade (1848)
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Kosambi Festival of Ideas

Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (1907- 1966) embodied the quintessential Indian Renaissance man that came into its own in the immediate years after independence.

He was a polyglot- an accomplished mathematician and a self- trained historian. He was well trained in Sanskrit and had a very good knowledge of Buddhism acquired from his father, a noted Buddhist scholar of his times. Educated in the United States, he returned to India not only to make contributions to mathematics but, above all, lay the basis of the current historiography of ancient India.

His orientation was firmly Marxist, and his works are a very good example of how the Marxist method can be used to give surprisingly innovative results. Many of his formulations have been proven incorrect by subsequent researches, but anyone reading his works even today cannot be but impressed not only by the wide scholarship and fascinating field work that he carried out, but also illuminating insights.

His deeply humanistic streak that still inspires many to read his works is best reflected in his own words.

“The subtle mystic philosophies, torturous religions, ornate literature, monuments teeming with intricate sculpture and delicate music of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed of the ‘cultured’ strata, sullen, uncoordinated discontent among the workers, general demoralization, misery, squalor and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other, one is the expression of the other…it is necessary to understand that history is not a sequence of haphazard events but is made by human beings in the satisfaction of daily needs.”

The DD Kosambi Festivals of Ideas being celebrated in Goa right now was inaugurated by Vice President MH Ansari on 5th February. P Sainath delivered a lecture on the 6th and Romila Thapar, who can easily be considered his most deserving succesor (along possibly with RS Sharma), had a talk yesterday. The events are being covered at the DD Kosambi blog. A news video there covers the speeches of Vice President Ansari and Dr. Meera Kosambi, DD Kosambi’s sociologist daughter.
For anyone who at any time has bathed in that suffusing glow of enlightenment when reading any of Kosambi’s works, reading and watching (the video) of the tributes to him, would be both nostalgic and re- assuring.

(A short biographical note appears here, as well as some of his other writings.)

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Antonio Gramsci and India

(on the 70th death anniversary of Antonio Gramsci, who died on April 27, 1937 in Mussolini’s prison)

Antonio Gramsci’s position in history of ideas cannot be underestimated. Given its overarching strength and universalist ambitions, it is very difficult to be original from within the Marxist framework- something that Gramsci managed to do in his short life. Despite the spread of Marxist ideas in India and his own reputation as a great Marxist theoretician, Antonio Gramsci has remained relatively distant in India.

This is not to say that there has been no influence of Gramsci. In fact, both India and Gramsci have influenced each other.

Much before India reached out to Antonio Gramsci after his writings became available in English translations in the late 1960s (though it was reviewed by Bhabhani Sen soon after it came out in 1957), Gramsci had reached India in the 1930s- indeed his key theoretical contribution to the theorization of revolutionary advance was illustrated with the strategy of the Indian freedom struggle.

While imprisoned in Mussolini’s prisons during the fascist purge of communists in Italy, he saw Mahatma Gandhi’s strategy of alternating active political movement and withdrawal as what he termed as the ‘war of movement’ and ‘war of position.’

The Indian communist leadership in the 1930s, under the awe of the ‘living Lenin’- Stalin, at that time had characterized the Indian freedom struggle as a bourgeois movement. But then, it will be incorrect to wholly blame Stalin for this. Much before he became a key figure within the CPSU, the brilliant, but mistaken, Indian revolutionary MN Roy had characterized the Indian struggle for freedom as a bourgeois one, something that Rajni Palme Dutt would make a central tenet in his book India Today, for a long time the Bible of Indian communists.

It turned out that both MN Roy, and much of the Indian communist leadership, excluding, but only to a certain extent, P.C. Joshi (who despite his rather inclusive and sympathetic look at the Indian freedom struggle, was an admirer of Stalin), were mistaken. In terms of a theoretical understanding, neither the CPI, nor the CPM, to speak nothing of the blatantly mistaken Maoists, have made any attempt to learn from Antonio Gramsci’s writings of the 1930s. The only attempt from within the establishment Left was made by the former CPI theoretician, the late Mohit Sen, who had incorporated Gramsci’s theoretical concepts in his understanding of the Indian Revolution, in the book published under that name in 1970.

Even Mohit Sen treated him from within Leninist glasses, writing a tract called the Leninism of Gramsci. Whether Gramsci went beyond Leninism or not may be a conclusive debate as yet, what is certain is that Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony, and the need to build organic intellectuals are more pertinent than Lenin’s (contrast Lenin’s ideas about the ‘professional revolutionaries with that of Gramsci’s ‘organic intellectuals’.) A reading from his essay on the Intellectuals from Selections from The Prison Notebooks confirms how closer he is to contemporary capitalist society:

Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields. The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organisers of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc. It should be noted that the entrepreneur himself represents a higher level of social elaboration, already characterised by a certain directive [dirigente]and technical (i.e. intellectual) capacity: he must have a certain technical capacity, not only in the limited sphere of his activity and initiative but in other spheres as well, at least in those which are closest to economic production. He must be an organiser of masses of men; he must be an organiser of the “confidence” of investors in his business, of the customers for his product, etc. (Link)

He fundamentally changed the understanding of the base- superstructure as envisaged in the binary model outlined by Marx in his The Critique of Political Economy that remained popular because of its great conceptual breakthrough and the simplicity of the concept. He rescued the Marx of The Eighteenth Brumaire from the mechanistic reductionism in the former work.

Economy and ideology. The claim (presented as an essential postulate of historical materialism) that every fluctuation of politics and ideology can be presented and expounded as an immediate expression of the structure, must be contested in theory as primitive infantilism, and combated in practice with the authentic testimony of Marx, the author of concrete political and historical works. Particularly important from this point of view are The Eighteenth Brumaire and the writings on the Eastern Question, but also other writings (Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany, The Civil War in France and lesser works). An analysis of these works allows one to establish better the Marxist historical methodology, integrating, illuminating and interpreting the theoretical affirmations scattered throughout his works.(Link )

Above all, Gramsci remains relevant because he tried to explain the nature of political power (much before the meaning of power was investigated, somewhat tangentially by Michel Foucault and Derrida), from the perspective of what he called the ‘subaltern’ perspective. The usage of the word ‘subaltern itself is interesting- it establishes a historical relationship between various, otherwise disparate classes. The short lived Indian school of historiography initiated by Ranajit Guha- the subaltern school of historians took off from Gramsci’s concept of the subaltern, employing it almost interchangeably and therefore restrictively with the ‘peasant.’

It is interesting to recall that one of the reasons that Gramsci came up with new nomenclature was because of the restrictions that he faced while writing in a fascist jail- anything that was ‘evidently Marxist’ could not have passed through the jail censorship.

Much later, in the mid- 1980s, Bipan Chandra and some of his associates employed Antonio Gramsci’s concepts to understand the Indian struggle for freedom and concluded that the Indian struggle for freedom was a revolution. This understanding remains fundamentally at variance with that of the mainstream communist Left, that still does not recognize the changed nature of political power in the backdrop of the establishment of popular democracy. It is, for them, still ‘bourgeois’ democracy, as if ‘proletarian democracy’ is a qualitatively different category.

This is not the place to go in why that is so- it sufficient is to mention that even the mainstream Left makes no pretense at theoretically advancing their understanding of India- categories like proletariat and what constitutes the revolutionary class(es) in the age of post- industrial capitalism. Among other works, Manuel Castells’ rather revisionist work The Rise of the Network Society (a work of ‘Hegelian dimensions’ nonetheless) and Anthony Giddens’ The Third Way remain un- debated.

It is among the Indian academics that Gramsci has proved to be more popular. Shashi Joshi and Bhagwan Josh, in their seminal study of the CPI, in the first two volumes of Struggle for Hegemony in India employed Gramsci’s path breaking work to indicate that the original intent of the Workers’ and Peasants Party which became part of the CPI (and to which P.C. Joshi also traced his political roots) was closer to the conclusions of Gramsci than those of the MN Roy/ Comintern line.

His death at the age of 46 was premature, and brutal coming as it did at the end of 10 years of solitary confinement.

On the evening of November 8, 1926, Gramsci was arrested in Rome and, in accordance with a series of “Exceptional Laws” enacted by the fascist-dominated Italian legislature, committed to solitary confinement at the Regina Coeli prison. This began a ten-year odyssey, marked by almost constant physical and psychic pain as a result of a prison experience that culminated, on April 27, 1937, in his death from a cerebral hemorrhage. No doubt the stroke that killed him was but the final outcome of years and years of illnesses that were never properly treated in prison.(Link )


A brief overview of the treatment of Gramsci’s ideas in India by Sobhanlal Dutta Gupta.

Writings of Antonio Gramsci at Marxists.org archives

International Socialist has an issue devoted to Antonio Gramsci (link via Histomatist )

A google search reveals an article Reading Gramsci in the time of Hindutva by Imtiaz Aijaz Ahmed. I haven’t read it though and could not find the online version either.

On a more personal side of his life, read this article from Guardian about the touching letters to his son and wife.

Image acknowledgement

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The Left, Caste and Dalits: A Troubled Relationship

(This post appeared at Jack Stephen’s blog, The Mustard Seed. My thanks to Jack for having invited me for writing the post).

The Indian Left has had a troubled association with the caste question.

The major reason, in case of the Left has been the over arching importance that Marxism has attached to class and class conciousness. This has been true of the Marxist Left which includes the original and later CPI, the CPM and even most of the Maoist formations. The socialist parties, specially under Ram Manohar Lohia and to a lesser extent Acharya Narendra Dev acknowledged the issue of caste since the fifties though from the backward caste, and not a Dalit perspective.

This post, however, focuses on the relationship between the Marxist Left and Dalit politics.

The class based approach of the Marxist Left gave little importance to caste, and even saw it as an impediment for growth of class consciousness. It’s mass fronts consisted of the trade unions, the peasant associations, landless agricultural workers. Outside these class based fronts were those for women, students and the cultural wing (the famous Indian People’s Theater Association).

No scope was seen for a Dalit or any other caste based association. In fact, when the DS4 of Kanshi Ram began to grow in the 1980s, it was seen, even by those cadres in the existing communist parties who came from a Dalit background, as reactionary and dangerous- since these threatened to break the unity of the class based fronts along casteist lines. At no time, till the Mandal Commission forced it to take a firm stand, did the Indian Left see centrality of the caste question in India.

Within the CPI and the CPM, the leadership has been, even till recently, primarily drawn from the Brahmins or the local dominant castes, with very few exceptions. Neither have these parties made any conscious attempt to bring cadre from the Dalit strata into leadership positions. Instead, they have recreated in their internal structures the imbalances of society.

This is not to deny the fact that they have also been relatively less susceptible to casteism, and many among their cadre continue to be within these parties because of the relative absence of casteism within these parties in comparison with others. This is especially so where Dalit movement has been weak or non- existent.

In comparison with some other countries, the Indian communists’ participation and acceptance of parliamentary politics has been long and unquestionable. However the stress of political action also blunted the social and mass based actions that these parties should have been involved in.

This came out very clearly when, after the CPI(M) Congress in 1998, in reply to a question as to why the Left had failed to strike roots in Uttar Pradesh, the then party General Secretary H.S. Surjeet explained the reasons thus:

“There has been no social reform movement in the state”.

This surely is a case of putting the cart before the horse, since for those on left of the political spectrum, reforms are only a part of a much more comprehensive radical agenda. The task of the left is to carry out changes that go beyond reforms and not wait for others to carry out the job. Surjeet’s words raise an existential question for the CPI(M).

Another reason of this dichotomy between the Left and the Dalit movement has been that Dr. Ambedkar, by far the most towering leader of the Dalit movement if not its only one till the rise of Kanshi Ram, had been an opponent of Marxism. His focus remained the social upliftment of the Dalits and as a politician his sensibilities honed in English liberalism restricted his view. W.N. Kuber puts it thus:

In 1937, (Ambedkar) founded the Independent Labour Party, for sometime joined hands with the communists in the labor field but did not take consistent attitude and fight class battles. Though his community was downtrodden and landless and mostly wage- earners, still he could not make them class- conscious, because of the weakness in his inherent thinking. After the Poona Pact he tried to lead the working class, but failed and left the field forever, and chose to become the leader of his community.

(source: Ambedkar: A Critical Study by W.N. Kuber, 1973. Page 304)

His insistence on Buddhism as an alternative to Marxism also did not help to build bridges.

Buddhistic countries that have gone over to communism do not understand what communism is. Communism of the Russian type aims at bringing it about by a bloody revolution. The Buddhist communism brings it about by a bloodless revolution. The South East Asians should give a political form to Buddha’s teaching…. Poverty cannot be an excuse for sacrificing human freedom.

(Source: Ambedkar, Life and Mission, page 487, quoted in Kuber).

To the over arching importance that Dr. Ambedkar gave to conversion as a salvation for the Dalits (then called the Depressed Classes), the scholarly CPI leader Hiren Mukerjee commented:

But merely by changing one’s religion, one cannot bring a solution, particularly to the kind of problem that we have in our country. That is why I say the conversion to Buddhism was a gesture, a moral gesture, with certain conceptual connotations of its own. Buddhism is a magnificent religion, but somehow it was eased out of India. If by some miracle, Buddhism is brought back again, well and good. But things do not happen in real life like that.

(source: Hiren Mukerjee: Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Extirpation of Untouchability, page 46, quoted in Kuber)

If the Left parties are more sensitive to the caste question in recent years, it is because of the battle lines that were drawn in the aftermath of the Mandal Commission and also because of the political base that caste based parties, especially the Bahujan Samaj Party have been to create for themselves. While these made a dent in the following of all existing parties, the ones specially impacted were the Congress and the Left.

The second reason is the recognition of near absolute identity of the Dalits as one of the more oppressed sections in the country. Earlier observers, even among the most radicals ones, disdained this. Groomed in the modernist, Nehruvian framework in the backdrop of global appeal of Marxism, the caste factor was pushed under the carpet. It was even seen as an obstacle in establishing class-consciousness.

This has now changed, and rightly so. The communists and the Dalit movement share a complementary role. While the Dalit movement has articulated the social and political aspirations of the oppressed community, it has lacked a firm economic program, with the result that once power is gained (in Uttar Pradesh, for example), the lack of a class based theoretical perspective restricts it to either parliamentary politics or the perspective, often narrow, of a single leader. A Marxist understanding and placing the Dalit movement within a larger national and world wide struggle for emancipation complements this social and political approach.

It is not that this has not been attempted, it was there during the brief existence of the Dalit Panthers Movement in the 1970s before its disintegration. It was also there in the approach of Sharad Patil who broke away from the CPM to form the Satyashodak Communist Party in Maharastra in the 1980s.

Given the ossification in the dominant Left, however, this dialogue will have to be initiated by the cadre of the Dalit movement and independent Marxists.

(This post owes much to Raghbir Singh, with whom I’ve had numerous discussions on the topic. He had first “warned” me about the “threat” from DS4 way back in 1987. Needless to say, we have both substantially revised our understanding since then.)